Drag artist mentors at DragTivism helped their mentees navigate their identities, and nail a killer contour. (Courtesy of DragTivism)
Editor's Note: This article is part of KQED Arts' story series Pride as Protest, which chronicles the past and present of LGBTQ+ activism in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Learn more about the series here.
Thanks to the show RuPaul's Drag Race and its accompanying DragCon beauty conference, the art of drag is now a multi-million-dollar industry with straight and LGBTQ+ consumers alike.
But before drag culture crossed over into the mainstream, it was a source of survival for queer and trans youth whose families rejected them for expressing themselves. Since at least the '60s, drag houses functioned as chosen families that kept young people off the streets.
That legacy is what The One and Only Rexy and Grace Towers decided to channel when they teamed up to create DragTivism, a mentorship program for LGBTQ+ youth that uses drag makeup as an art therapy tool, building community through carefully applied rhinestones, false lashes and contouring.
The first DragTivism event took place last year during Pride Month at the San Francisco LGBT Center, when about a dozen young people in their late teens and early 20s came for a weekend of food, performances and workshops. Some of the youth were housing-insecure; others had supportive families but were still figuring out their identity labels and transitions.
"At some point, drag is cheaper than therapy," says Towers. "What we leave on the stage is the processing of emotional, mental and just," she sighs, "life."
The next DragTivism is in the works for Oakland Pride in early September. Last year, the mentees worked one-on-one with professional drag performers, such as award-winning San Francisco performance artist and storyteller Juliana Delgado Lopera. She and the other mentors taught participating youth about character development and building a performance. Most importantly, they encouraged them to find their unique forms of self-expression in a supportive and inclusive environment.
"That's where we saw a lot of our youth really start to flourish," says The One and Only Rexy, a.k.a. Rexy Tapia, who also began to blossom after performing in drag for the first time.
Her debut came at an assembly, when she was only in middle school. Feeling seen for the first time, she came out as queer the same day. That whirlwind formative experience emboldened Tapia to become one of Mission High School's fiercest student activists in the years that followed. By junior year, she became president of the school's GSA Network and designed an LGBTQ+ history curriculum (in her free time, during spring break!) that's now being taught at several San Francisco public schools.
During this period of honing her skills as an artist and leader, Tapia noticed herself wearing drag more and more, and that she felt her best presenting as a woman. After graduating in 2015, she came out as trans.
"Doing drag gave me the ability to express myself and find myself when I didn’t have any other way of doing so," reflects Tapia, whose drag looks are high-femme and all about showing leg. "That’s really I hope what youths find in drag. Eventually for me, my drag turned into my source of power."
The idea for DragTivism came in 2018 when Tapia met Towers, one of her drag idols. Towers, a bold performer who often rocks dramatic eye makeup, chest hair and a beard, is a member of Queens of the Castro, a nonprofit that gives scholarships to LGBTQ+ youth. Her and Tapia's backgrounds in education are a big reason why mentorship is such an important aspect of the event.
"Having a queer mentor of some sort is something that I wish I would have had when I was going through my troubled youth," says Towers. "It’s been really beautiful to see mentorship on both ends, not just what we're curating for the youth to come and partake in, but me and Rexy are actively engaged in this mentorship dynamic."
Tapia says that not all drag spaces are trans-friendly—as evinced by RuPaul's controversial 2018 comments suggesting that he wouldn't allow a transitioning trans woman to compete on Drag Race (though that changed this year with trans performer Gia Gunn's inclusion). That's why Tapia and Towers take care to ensure that DragTivism is welcoming to all the identities under the LGBTQ+ umbrella—including those who are gender-nonconforming or have a performance style that doesn't fit the pageant-ready drag queen mold.
"We’re starting to be at a point in the drag scene where drag is not political anymore, or in many spaces it's even more hostile to trans people and anyone who's not a cis, gay man," says Tapia. "That’s another reason why it’s important for me as a trans woman, as a woman, as a person of color, to continue creating this ability for youth."
Tapia says drag taught her about the history of LGBTQ+ activism. She learned that drag queens and trans women were key agitators in the Compton's Cafeteria riot in San Francisco and the Stonewall uprising in New York City, two instances in the 1960s when the LGBTQ+ community rioted against police brutality and sparked the modern-day gay rights movement.
That history has fueled Tapia's activism, and, through DragTivism and the public-school curricula she designs, she wants youth to feel similarly empowered. "That’s what I hope our youth are getting out of DragTivism, that they’re getting access to the information they rightfully deserve," she says, adding that education is power.
"They can know they have that power to create change while having fun and looking fabulous."